“Straight Outta Compton” could have been a truly great film
Artists are performers. Their art comes from experience. Many times this experience is a collective reflection of their environment; the storytellers may be telling tales and exaggerations of those that surround them, rather than exact representations of the truth.
It’s interesting that in “Straight Outta Compton,” the new biopic about the founding of NWA, the media refers to their music as “gangsta rap,” whereas the artists themselves referred to it as reality rap. “Reality” might be a slight misnomer, as only one of the famed group was an active gang member and drug dealer, and much of the street language was created for esthetic reasons within the songs themselves.
But their message, the truth of their lives, was mostly on point. They lived in a world where the police drove tanks through houses and harassed teenagers for walking down the street and gang members hijacked schools buses to teach respect to the students by giving motivational speeches at gun point.
The reaction to the music, the argument that it glorified a dangerous lifestyle and encouraged profanity as an acceptable form of communication missed the point entirely. NWA was revealing a culture of poverty that most of America wanted to ignore. For that reason alone, their music was important.
“Straight Outta Compton” develops these themes well. Had it left it at that, or focused more on the origin and less on the rise to fame, it might have been a great film. But like all musicians who come from obscurity and are thrust into wealth and power, the story of NWA’s members follows a trajectory of excess, exploitation, and tragedy, and the result is an oft-repeated narrative that’s all too familiar.
There are many places like Compton in the United States. It’s replicated in at least one or two neighborhoods in every medium-to-large city. The middle and upper classes avoid these neighborhoods out of fear, the police rule them with an iron fist, and the residents scrape by with high amounts of cyclical poverty, homelessness, and violence. Drugs are both an escape and an important source of income.
Ignorance is rampant and combated by bussing students to neighboring schools in an effort to place them in a better environment. But even in places like this, true talent can grow.
If the Beatles had been born in Compton rather than Liverpool, they would still be musicians, although Pete Best might have started a deadly street fight with Ringo Starr before fading into obscurity. “Straight Outta Compton” tells the story of how Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, DJ Yella and MC Ren formed NWA and founded Ruthless Records between 1988 and 1993. Their rise to fame is nothing new in the music industry, especially for black musicians.
The group finds a new sound and gains popularity through local radio play, attracting the attention of a white manager who opens all the right doors for them; they tour and become a sensation that shocks the establishment; they find out they were taken advantage of by their manager, fight about money, and go their separate ways. It’s the same story played out over and over again in the industry. The difference is the way the movie brings the reality of their origins into focus.
Perhaps the best performance of the film is given by Jason Mitchell as Eric Wright, aka Eazy-E. Wright has the greater dramatic arc, as he was the original financier and defacto star of NWA who failed to find lasting financial success. As Dr. Dre and Ice Cube went their own way and become superstars, Wright remained loyal to Jerry Heller, his slippery manager. It is a much more difficult role to play, especially given the tragic end, and Mitchell shows his talent by playing the part well.
The film runs nearly two-and-half hours and the last hour seems to drag—the back-and-forth arguing on solo albums and the increasing menace of Suge Knight are less interesting than the filmmakers realize. Once the NWA crew becomes rich, the stakes drop dramatically.
The present for both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are probably the best examples of the American Dream in recent memory. Through hard work and luck, two men that were born into the some of worst conditions that can be found in the U.S. overcame their upbringing and became massively successful musicians.
They’ve now entered middle age—becoming a mediocre movie star and a purveyor of high-cost, low-quality headphones respectively. It’s the kind of story that makes America great. “Straight Outta Compton” tells that story well enough, but it needed tighter editing. There is likely enough material to make two films. The first in that series might have been transcendent.